"Nuclear Weapons Are Cold War Relics."
Not so. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the era of nuclear competition seemed to be at an end, and the United States and Russia began to get rid of many weapons they had used to threaten each other for more than 40 years. In 1967, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,255 warheads, but by 2010, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) signed with Russia, the United States had promised to deploy no more than 1,550.
In June of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his intention to go even lower, to around 1,000 warheads -- a move that would leave the United States with fewer nuclear weapons than at any time since 1953. What's more, influential figures around the world, including erstwhile American hawks, have increasingly supported steps toward total disarmament. In his major 2009 address in Prague, Obama committed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Nuclear reductions and the heady dreams of abolition are driven in part by a belief that nukes are Cold War anachronisms. But it would be incorrect -- dangerous, in fact -- to assume that the conditions that have allowed the United States to de-emphasize its atomic arsenal will persist. Nuclear weapons are still the most potent military tools on Earth, and they will remain central to geopolitical competition. They have been relatively unimportant in the recent past not because humanity has somehow become more enlightened, but because we have been blessed with a temporary respite from great-power rivalry.
The Soviet Union's collapse left the United States as the world's sole superpower, and America's unmatched conventional military overawed other countries. Nuclear weapons have not been central to America's national security for the past two decades because its primary foes -- Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and al Qaeda -- did not have them. Whatever America's problems in prosecuting its recent wars, a lack of firepower was not one of them.
But times are changing. Economists predict that China could overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the coming years, and international relations theory tells us that transitions between reigning hegemons and rising challengers often produce conflict. Already, China has become more assertive in pursuing revisionist claims in East Asia, confronting America's allies, and building military capabilities -- including anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines -- tailored for a fight with the United States. In September 2012, a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands nearly caused a war that could have easily drawn in the United States. Beijing's contested claims to natural resources in the South China Sea and ever-present tensions with Taiwan could also lead to Sino-U.S. conflict. Even relations with Russia, America's partner in arms control, are becoming more competitive: The civil war in Syria bears every hallmark of a Cold War-style proxy battle. In short, great-power political competition is heating up once again, and as it does, nuclear weapons will once again take center stage.
The writing is already on the wall. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are modernizing or expanding their nuclear arsenals, and Iran is vigorously pursuing its own nuclear capability. As Yale University political scientist Paul Bracken notes, we are entering a "second nuclear age" in which "the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics." Nostalgia for simpler times can be seductive, but the United States needs a nuclear force that can protect it from the challenges that lie ahead.
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